Lithuania seeks to heal Soviet trauma after 30 years of freedom

Seeking justice for victims of the Soviet regime to heal historical trauma has become a top priority for Lithuania as…

Seeking justice for victims of the Soviet regime to heal historical trauma has become a top priority for Lithuania as it marks 30 years since it became the first republic to break away from the USSR.

Auksute Ramanauskaite Skokauskiene spent her childhood in living under an assumed identity to avoid Soviet authorities tracing her father who led Lithuania’s armed resistance against Soviet rule in the Baltic state after World War II.

Captured in 1956 and executed the following year, Adolfas Ramanauskas was only given a full state funeral some six decades later in 2018, after archaeologists identified his body in a mass grave.

“I always felt very disturbed that the Soviets slandered my dad and other freedom fighters,” Ramanauskaite Skokauskiene, a former MP and retired engineer, told AFP.

“For me, it was very important that now I have a grave where I can come.”

Lithuania’s departure from the USSR on March 11, 1990 triggered a year of turmoil that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, a move that heralded the end of the Cold War.

While Lithuanians have since enjoyed impressive economic growth — notably after joining EU and NATO in 2004 — the Baltic nation of 2.8 million people also struggles with some of Europe’s highest rates of suicide, alcoholism and emigration.

Some critics blame persistent poverty and high levels of income inequality for these social ills, but others insist they are also symptoms of intergenerational trauma rooted in the undigested past.

“Can it be that our society is ill, and the name of the disease is not coronavirus? One of the reasons for Lithuanians to be depressed could be our difficult and complicated history,” Laimonas Talat Kelpsa, a senior foreign ministry official, told psychotherapists and diplomats at a recent conference in Vilnius focused on collective trauma.

– Acknowledging the past –

Experts suggest that historical injustice and the failure to meet the needs of the victims have a huge impact on societies haunted by history.

According to Simon Wessely, a professor of psychological medicine at King’s College London, acknowledging the past is important both individually and collectively.

“A single person can be a perpetrator, a victim and a bystander at different times in their lives. So it is with countries and so it is with culture,” he told delegates at the conference.

“Sometimes (the past) is too painful to acknowledge but acknowledge it we must,” Wessely said.

– Turbulent history –

Like fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviets during World War II and then deeply scarred by the Stalinist-era deportation of hundreds of thousands of its people to Siberia and Central Asia in the 1940s and 1950s.

While the trio remained firmly under Moscow’s thumb for decades, cracks first began to show with Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival in the Kremlin in 1985.

Within the space of a few years, his perestroika and glasnost political and economic reforms began to spiral out of control, presenting an opportunity that was not lost on Lithuanians.

On March 11, 1990, Lithuanian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for independence, including Communist Party rebels.

Moscow recognised Lithuania’s independence following a failed coup by communist hardliners in the Soviet capital in August 1991. The USSR was formally dissolved four months later.

The Baltic states have had rocky relations with Moscow ever since, not least because of different perceptions about WWII and the Soviet era.

In 2016, Lithuania declared an ex-KGB official guilty of genocide for his role in arresting partisan leader Ramanauskas. The European Court of Human Rights approved the verdict.

Last year, a Lithuanian court found more than 60 former Soviet officials guilty of war crimes in absentia for their role in a bloody 1991 crackdown against the pro-independence movement that killed 14 civilians and wounded over 700.

Moscow insisted the trial was politically motivated. It refuses to recognise the Soviet takeover of the Baltic states as an occupation. Lithuania has never received an apology or reparations.

– ‘Critical year’ –

Lamberto Zannier, OSCE Commissioner on National Minorities, warned that 2020 “could potentially be a very critical year” as divisions grow over the interpretation of history.

Without naming countries, he said that “acknowledgement, public apologies and reparations” are key elements in seeking “historical closure”.

Lithuania and other central European states once dominated by the Soviets recently slammed Russia for downplaying communist-era crimes and rewriting history for political purposes.

Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda regards Russia as the “biggest long-term threat” to his country and has pledged to “rebuff any attempts to fabricate history”.

Vilnius is also urging EU counterparts not to attend Russia’s upcoming May 9 Victory Day parade marking 75 years since the end of World War II.

But Lithuania has also come under fire for failing to acknowledge the role of local Nazi collaborators and for drawing comparisons between communist oppression and the Nazi Holocaust.

While recognition of victims and perpetrators is a precondition to putting the past to rest, it is just a first step in healing historical trauma, according to Danute Gailiene, a Vilnius University professor of psychology.

“We cannot say we are a healthy and mature society. There is a long way to go, but we are on it,” she said.